Making Money in Music: a Poll and a Crowdstorm

I’ve created a twitter poll (something I should be doing more regularly) asking a question of central importance to this blog, to my life, my creative pursuits, and something that’s been on everybody’s mind since the dawn of music (when wazzat?): how should musicians get paid? If I haven’t given all the possible discrete answers, then please tweet me (@jeanh) or comment here if you have other ideas that don’t fit the framework imposed by my limited imagination on such matters.

I’m hoping to use this small gesture as a way to springboard into a wider and more comprehensive crowdstorm (cloudstorm? tweetup? weathercamp? huh?) about music and money. To come, to come, but here’s what I’m thinking. I’d like to hear practical ideas for musicians of all styles and instruments (or vocalists) to earn money so that you can continue making music, and possibly even make a sustainable living wage from it. This includes old (e.g., session work) and new (e.g., ad revenue sharing sites) methods.

Keep in mind that I am totally uninterested in hearing about fake Youtube (or whatever “viral” nonsense) campaigns (which I’ve denounced more than once on this blog) for mediocre bands that want to be successful in very limited, old-fashioned ways.  Cokeheads dreaming of a “Pitchfork 10” or a short-lived career in “reality programming” needn’t apply. Let’s put our heads together and figure this out.

The end of free music?

lastfm_redLast.fm (aka CBS) has finally thrown in the towel on free music. Well, I’m not going with them. It’s not that Last.fm sucks; they still offer a great service, one that *might* be worth the subscription fee, even. But for those of us who are trying to give music away for free, there’s simply no place for us on their platform.

It seems that ever since the CBS acquisition in twenty-ought-seven (and likely before that event), Last.fm has been stepping back from its potential to act as a listener and creator driven platform for sharing music. Call me old fashioned, but the listeners and musicians ought to be able to set the terms for their exchanges.

For those who forget, over the past few years, Last.fm (like many successful B2C web enterprises) tested out various revenue strategies on their audiences, in small increments – by introducing a (scandalous) royalty sharing agreement, by increasing the amount of advertising on artists’ pages, and even introducing ad revenue sharing for artists. I suppose none of these efforts eventually generated sufficient revenue to sustain it as a viable division within CBS.

Whatever. Not my problem anymore. Everything in the Simulacre catalogue (A Spectre Is Haunting Europe, Dupobs, and a few new as-yet-unannounced projects) will still be available on other free music-capable platforms (including the mighty Reverbnation, but I’ll go scoping out more of them). And of course, up until March 30 (when Last.fm formally implements its subscription fees in most countries), you’re still free to download any of our music for free there, chat about it, and suchlike. After that, those conversations contained on last.fm (really the glue that binds its circulation structure together) will necessarily have to migrate with us.

Indeed, it seems it does matter who owns what in Music 2.0.

At least CBS doesn’t own me (a government and a few banks do, but that’s another story).

P2P in Canada

I was interviewed this morning for Global National on the subject of P2P lawsuits by the RIAA. Every time there’s some sensational story to be mined, the television media seem to jump. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

I tried to stay focused on the Canadian angle, making the points that (1) ISPs in Canada are not obliged to reveal the identities attached to IP addresses and (2) despite pressure from the CRIA (Canada’s branch plant of the RIAA), Canada’s private copying levy (among other things) makes such lawsuits unlikely to succeed here. I also tried to make the point that free distribution of music hurts only a small fraction of musicians (mainly the big celebrities), and that trends in the ongoing reshaping of the music industry confirm this pattern. Hopefully, the messaging is clear on the news tonight. Hopefully I look OK.

They also wanted to film me downloading the new Radiohead LP, but I had already paid for it late last night (FYI – I shelled out £5), and the downloading cannot happen yet. So they got some shots of my torrent search bar and some farting around on emusic (the most recent Twilight Circus Dub Soundsystem is ace, btw!). That’s good – hopefully the people watching Global will pick up a few tips on how to take control of their music acquisition practices back from the iTunes Music Store and its ilk.

RIP Tony Wilson

Tony Wilson is dead. For those who don’t know, Wilson was the notorious owner of the legendary Factory Records and Haçienda Club in Manchester, UK. As dramatized in the 2000s film 24 Hour Party People, Wilson was also responsible for launching the highly influential Joy Division/New Order constellation, as well as lesser (though notable) acts such as The Happy Mondays. A seminal figure in the history of independent music, he and his contributions shall be missed dearly.

AOIR 8 Vancouver, 50 Parties, etc. (Oct. 2007)

Heya. I am presenting in a panel at AOIR this year (the title of my presentation/paper is “The Technical Micropolitics of the Online Music Industry, 1997-2007″, abstract here). For those of you who’ve followed my blog, you’ll know something of what to expect, except that I’ll be strictly framing up the narrative in terms of something called “technical micropolitics”, which, with any luck, I’ll have a competent grasp of by the time the conference rolls along. Theory, y’know? One minute you think you’ve got it, and the next minute, well, you sound like Daffy Duck.

Which brings me to another announcement of sorts – one more suited to quacking unintelligibly [& yes, readers coming in via The ORG should get that one]. I volunteered to organize (hopefully not all by my lonesome self!) the Vancouver instantiation of something Jimmy Wales started called “Heather and Jimmy’s 50 Party Club“. See the links I’ve provided for as detailed an explanation as you’re going to get (which admittedly ain’t much), but in a nutshell, you can expect a gathering of an international set of free culture/creative commons/open source nerds drinking together in the same physical space and engaging in as-yet-undetermined activities to keep each other vaguely entertained. Go to the wiki and pitch in! Your help is needed. Know of a potential sponsor (hint – local microbreweries or wineries love nerds because nerds drink lots!)? A venue? An entertainment source? A fax machine we can rig up to send loopfaxes to Larry Lessig for quitting the good fight? Or do you just wanna show up and make an arse of yourself? Get with our little planning wiki, whatever the case. Let’s have some fun.

On Last.fm and royalty payments

Clear Channel didn’t get away with it, and now Last.fm is taking heat for not paying out royalties to independent artists. Last.fm, recently purchased by CBS, is now heating up indie music business blogs with this policy, even though it’s been in place since the company started.

Why so, asks the intrepid indie music biz blogger/Last.fm enthusiast and indie label/band person? Well, it seems there’s some misunderstanding of how royalty collection works. Last.fm is in fact playing by the rules, paying royalties to collection societies when tracks are streamed.

The big difference between Last.fm and conventional radio (and indie labels and bands should take note) is that with Last.fm, playlist/track streaming statistics are not hidden from public view, and do not rely on the inaccurate and gameable conventional sampling methods used by groups such as BMI, ASCAP or SOCAN in tracking radio airplay. And it’s not a closed pay-per-stat-view shop like Big Champagne is. As if that weren’t enough, the problem of payola is curbed via the voluntary ‘pull’ nature of “airplay” on Last.fm. The critiques of radio cannot be transplanted to a service such as Last.fm so swiftly. It is simply a different animal.

And anyway – wasn’t the hulaballo about Clear Channel over the issue of payola in the first place? Lest we forget, “Clear Channel had responded to allegations of payola with a pay-for-play scheme“.

This is not to say that there’s nothing about which we can be critical with this Last.fm thing. I’ve blogged this previously, but I’ll say it again: it matters who owns what in Internet 2.0. And even though it feels like listeners are running the show on Last.fm, they might not be, and probably aren’t. Every boss must manage, and every company must profit, or die. It seems that the most important question is still – to invoke the terminology of radio, new and old – are we really “streaming” or are we being “programmed”?

FMC, A2IM force Clear Channel to pay royalties to independent musicians

There’s some great news in Future of Music Coalition’s latest newsletter about Clear Channel’s treatment of independent musicians. In just ten short days of campaigning (including blogging, negotiating with the radio giant directly, and filing a Request for a Declaratory Ruling at the FCC) the organization (with help from A2IM) forced the company to finally modify the wording of their court-mandated offering to indies so that royalties are paid when their music is played. Definitely a small victory in an increasingly concentrated music industry, and against one of its largest, most concentrated entities, too, I might add.

More background on the story at the FMC blog.

And if this liberation of the airwaves (digital or analog) stuff is your bag, then please pitch in however you can. Sign up for the FMC Newsletter, or help with their various campaigns to ensure a more democratic character for the music, internet and radio industries.

20 Years of Scratch Records

There’s a pretty good yarn in last Wednesday’s Vancouver Courier about Scratch Records, an independent music institution in Vancouver for 20 years now. For those of us old enough to recall Scratch’s origins as the-little-indie-store-that-could below street level in Gastown, it’s great, and inspiring to see this label/shop/distributor steadfastly navigating the dauntingly dynamic 21st century music business, and doing it with flair.

Since the growth of online music in the early part of this century, independent music retailers have received mixed blessings, unevenly distributed around the English-speaking world. Scratch is a company that appears to be surviving due to its flexible business model – it’s a 3-in-1 label, shop and distributor, and it sells both CDs and vinyl. As founder/owner Keith Parry notes, this is essential to the business’ success:

We do all these things–the label, the store and the distribution–to cast out lots of little lines to hopefully sell enough records to get by. If we just had one of these things, we would probably be done. Everything is connected, and we need all those branches of the business to keep going.

The story of Scratch as rendered here tells much about our little independent music scene over the past twenty years – small, fragile (or should I say “on edge”), close-knit (at least for those who get into the right parties), yet ultimately exportable (well, a few – Skinny Puppy, Black Mountain, New Pornographers) and, surprisingly, durable.

It’s also encouraging to see a local independent company benefit from the upsurge in vinyl sales over the past several years, as also cited in the article. I wonder how many bands are now (like my band) eschewing CDs entirely to go with vinyl-only/free digital download releases?

Last.fm, CBS and the future of music

OK, I was going to take a lot of time and write a measured and considered manifesto, but in the spirit of the impulsivity, that, according to my friend Jason, haunts, and characterizes the blogosphere, I’ve decided to have a little blurt and then go enjoy the blistering West Coast sunshine. Blogs are for blurts; journals are for more careful screeds. Or maybe I’ll think differently tomorrow morning.

Last.fm was just bought by CBS Corp for a whopping $280 million US. According to the site’s blog, CBS “gets it”, which can imply a lot. Or not. Let’s try and untangle this problem, shall we?

Last.fm’s brand image is cloaked in thought-choking terminology including “the social music revolution”, “the wisdom of crowds”, “discovery”, “exploration”, and “sharing”, the usual stuff of second generation (Web 2 point oh) utopianism. So what would it say about CBS’ strategic vision, to say that the company “gets” this? To my mind, it indicates the following:

CBS wants to monetize what they predict will be fundamental changes in the way music is distributed and shared – changes that center around the evolution of taste publics, and Last.fm – with its mode of connecting users into taste publics, and its recognition of the way music earns value via its social contextualization – is the most valuable indicator about how these processes unfold.

I agree that Last.fm is probably the best indicator yet developed (partly due to the fact that it has scaled to a large user base, which means that it has now become useful to CBS by having generated a critical mass of aggregate data) of how taste communities are formed and evolve.

And like Nancy at Online Fandom is, I am also uncertain whether the users of Last.fm will revolt against the company, fearing ads, the commoditization of their listening habits, or whatever other evils of the commercial Internet they may anticipate. I doubt there will be much of a backlash, so long as users derive value from it and it does not devolve into a top-down or non-neutral barometer of taste.

But what is the potential impact of this buyout? I think the answer, for now, resides in questions. I’ve thought of a few, anyway:

Now that a major media company has thrown its money behind it, how will CBS reproduce its business model through the Last.fm paradigm of music consumption/dissemination? Will CBS be responsive to changes in taste, or will it still try to foist dull things upon listeners? Will they respond to a supposedly “organic” evolution of taste publics, or will they steward or even manufacture these publics? Will they adequately represent minority/fringe interests, or will these suffer from the tyrrany of the American Idol-obsessed “majority” of music fans?

How will Last.fm account for the distinctive modalities of cultural reproduction in different taste publics? Consider the use of fan fiction in sustaining fan communities around particular bands or artists. This is a mode of social reproduction that works by a logic that simply doesn’t exist in other musical circles (consider art music, or folk traditions, where dissemination depends on a whole other set of genre rules).

And finally, how will the CBS Last.fm make use of indie content on the site? Currently, labels and artists on the site enjoy a you-get-the-organic-viral-stuff-for-free-but-you-can-pay-for-real-promotion system (which is far better than the opaque system over at the News Corp. Myspace, which hand-picks featured content, following supposedly ‘old-fashioned’ music industry practices*).

How will independents fare under the new arrangements? I think that the minute Last.fm gives indies the short end of the stick and emphasizes featured content (they already do this a little bit, using banner ads and other paid promotion features), the accuracy of their engine for tracking user tastes depreciates. Additionally, under such conditions the site becomes more an instrument of managing or “programming” taste (to borrow the evocative, and appropriate terminology of conventional radio) than an instrument that reflects it – in Gramscian language, a hegemonic institution rather than a site for counterhegemonic resistance.

I acknowledge that these questions could also be relevant to a discussion of the pre-CBS Last.fm, which was built-for-buyout, despite the obvious benefits users derive from it. But the buyout forces these questions into the spotlight, and there’s no better time than now to raise them, while everyone’s paying attention.

Comments? Questions? BS barometrics? Holler back.